How to Create a Volunteer Handbook for Your Nonprofit

Volunteers building a home
••• Tim Pannell/Corbis/VCG / Getty Images

When your nonprofit starts attracting volunteers, it can be an exciting time of growth and community for everyone involved. However, when volunteers start streaming in, it can be overwhelming to onboard, train, and even manage all of them. It's a significant problem to have, but your organization can create systems and standards to support your volunteers.

That's where a volunteer handbook comes essential. Much like employee handbooks and training materials in businesses, a volunteer handbook serves to inform, educate, and support volunteers.

What Is a Volunteer Handbook?

At its core, a volunteer handbook is a resource (printed or digital) that clearly defines what your nonprofit does and how volunteers help the organization. It can explain volunteering rules, as well as set out tasks or expectations.

A handbook should be used to recruit, onboard, and train volunteers so that everyone starts with the same knowledge.

It's also a "legacy" resource that everyone can use as they grow with your organization.

Why Create One?

Nonprofits, in many instances, have limited resources and staff. Spending time to recruit, train, and supervise volunteers can add up quickly, especially if you have a lot of interested individuals.

Thankfully, volunteer handbooks can help reduce some of the time and money involved in volunteer recruitment and onboarding. Also, volunteer handbooks don't have to be expensive or elaborate. A simple online PDF can standardize the volunteer experience and doesn't require much time, money, or print materials.

Best of all, a volunteer handbook provides a consistent resource that staff, volunteers, and even donors can reference. Doing so gives everyone a clear picture of what your organization does and how volunteers help. Rather than worrying about inconsistent training experiences or "word of mouth" directions, volunteers and staff have a handbook that helps them succeed.

When you include communication methods and contact information, you also decrease the amount of "baton-passing" it can take to answer a volunteer's question or organize schedules. A volunteer handbook empowers people to do their best work via direct access to the people they work with.

When writing a handbook, it will be essential to consider your audience. You might have young volunteers, family volunteers, and older volunteers. With the latter, it's especially important to speak to them respectfully without using cliches or stereotypes.

What Goes Into a Volunteer Handbook?

Depending on the size and sector of your nonprofit, your handbook will vary in size and breadth. Each nonprofit is different and has its own structure, so there's no one table of contents for your volunteer handbook.

However, many nonprofits, both small and large, use handbooks that include items such as:

  • Welcome Letter. This could consist of a thank you or a warm welcome to increase interest in the volunteer program. It also sets the tone for your organization's staff/volunteer relationship. You can even highlight how volunteering benefits volunteers to get people even more interested in joining your program.
  • Organization's Mission. The mission explains the who, what, and why of your organization.
  • List of Staff and Board of Directors.
  • Programs and Campaigns. List all of the programs your nonprofit offers, as well as any community outreach. Include services offered, programs funded, and locations open.
  • Roles and Responsibilities of Volunteers. This section may include positions and tasks to fill. You can also highlight the impact volunteers have and information on diversity and representation.
  • Volunteer Policies. Outline qualifications for volunteer positions. For instance, if they need a background check, tests, or certifications. Include application forms. Explain absence and termination policies
  • Conduct and Behavior. Explain the dress code, professional behavior expectations, and where volunteers can report concerns. Some organizations may include their code of ethics, especially if a volunteer's work is sensitive, such as caring for children, the disabled, or the elderly.
  • Operations and Work Outlines. Nonprofits can make this section specific to different volunteer roles, or provide a generic template for where to report or what to wear. Also include safety guidelines, work process, and information on shifts and schedules.
  • Directory. Include staff members or volunteer leaders who are in charge. List essential phone numbers, group tools, and websites that will help volunteers keep track of their tasks or schedules.

Often volunteer handbooks include many more items than listed here. For instance, the National Wildlife Foundations includes sections on record management, dress code, attendance and time, minimum hours required, training, evaluation, recognition, conduct, smoking and drugs, safety and liability, reimbursement of expenses, safety and security, sexual harassment, and conflicts of interest. 

Customization

The list above is just a starting point for your nonprofit; in no way is it the only format you can choose. Nonprofits can make a full handbook version, or they can take more of a volunteer "orientation" approach.

An orientation handbook may focus only on the roles and tasks volunteers will be performing for your organization. These descriptions could be customized to each position or could serve as a general orientation handbook that all volunteers receive. Orientation can also include videos volunteers can access remotely, or a group or individual meeting.

Some nonprofits may need to include additional sections in their handbooks, such as reimbursement guidelines or emergency evacuation procedures. There may also be some legal or insurance disclaimers to include, such as injury liability information and information about your state's "Good Samaritans Law." Take a moment to ask if there are any "unusual" tasks you'll ask of your volunteers, and create a section in your handbook that addresses them.

How to Make a Volunteer Handbook (Quickly)

The beauty of a volunteer handbook is that it doesn't have to be complicated. You can use existing training documents or discussions between staff and volunteers to decide what to include.

You can also use other nonprofits' handbooks as an outline (but don't copy!). Also, keep in mind that your handbook doesn't have to be perfect; it's OK to start with a first edition and upgrade as you expand.

The key is just to get started.

Using Microsoft Word or Google Docs, one of your volunteers or staff members can select professional manual templates, brochure templates, or just use a basic document. To make it easy to browse, however, try to include:

  • A clear title with all relevant information (name, address, contact information)
  • A table of contents
  • Page breaks between sections
  • Simple, easy-to-read content
  • Easy-to-read font and colors
  • Program coordinator contact information for secure communication

You can brand your handbook to match your organization's colors, fonts, and image style. Make your handbook as clear, organized, and concise as possible.

Once you've got your first handbook edited and ready to go, you can either print it or create an online PDF for your website. PDF is the most affordable option. With an online PDF, you can distribute the handbook via email, social media, or your website. Having the manual in virtual form makes it much easier to update frequently too.

Examples

Looking for some inspiration? Here are a few examples of what your volunteer handbook could look like:

Remember, there is no "one size fits all" approach to creating a volunteer handbook. Think about what information you need to share consistently with your volunteers and which resources you'd like them to have. You can always add an update later

Save time, money, energy, and stress by giving your staff and volunteers a resource they can use to make the most impact with the least amount of oversight. 

Article Sources

  1. Senior Planning Services. "Avoiding “Elderspeak”: Respectful Communication with Older Adults." Accessed May 16. 2020.

  2. Council of Nonprofits. "Code of ethics for nonprofits - Why your nonprofit may want to adopt a statement of values." Accessed May 16, 2020.

  3. National Council of Nonprofits. "Excerpt from Policies and Procedures, National Wildlife Foundation." Accessed May 14, 2020.

  4. 501 Commons. "Orientation and Training." Accessed May 16, 2020.

  5. USLegal. "Good Samaritans Law and Legal Definition." Accessed May 14, 2020.